Press Box

Can Murdoch Pass the Stink Test?

Assessing the mogul against the standards of the Dow Jones code of conduct.

Rupert Murdoch

Waving a $5 billion bouquet and blowing kisses from puckered lips, Rupert Murdoch has now been wooing the Bancroft family for the hand of Dow Jones & Co. for more than a month. In his May 11 entreaty to the family, the old goat vowed that on becoming owner, he would never defile any Dow Jones title, writing:

Maintaining the heritage of independence and journalistic integrity of the Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones’ other publications would be of utmost importance to me and to News Corporation.

That’s a lovely thought to express in the rutting heat of courtship, but could Murdoch be trusted to do the right thing once he became owner of the world’s leading financial daily and its sister publications? For starters, could he and his management team come close to upholding the Dow Jones code of conduct, which applies to all Dow Jones employees?

Give the code a gander. Dow Jones places the highest premium on telling its customers the truth. “If we are not telling them the truth—or even if they, for any valid reason, believe that we are not—then Dow Jones cannot prosper,” the code states. It continues:

The Company will suffer, for example, if our customers cannot assume that:Our facts are accurate and fairly presented;Our analyses represent our best independent judgments rather than our preferences, or those of our sources, advertisers or information providers;Our opinions represent only our own editorial philosophies; orThere are no hidden agendas in any of our journalistic undertakings.

Setting aside for a moment Murdoch’s many skills and accomplishments, he’s not particularly interested in the accurate and fair presentation of facts. He believes the rest of the press is liberal and that the conservative swing of his Fox News Channel and New York Post exist to correct that bias. He has routinely used his publications to help elect British politicians (John Major and Tony Blair) and his enterprises to advance personal business and political interests. (The Independentpredicted last year that once Blair stepped down from office, Murdoch would reward him with a seat on the News Corp. board. We shall see. For more of Murdoch’s mucking about, see these previous columns: “The Murdoch Street Journal,” “Eight More Reasons to Distrust Murdoch,” “Meet Mrs. Murdoch,” and “Murdoch Lies to the Financial Times.”)

Murdoch’s politicking is so transparent that it’s hard to accuse him of pursing “hidden agendas.” Once it became politically expedient, he was happy to host a political fundraiser for the liberal Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) in 2006. In 2004, he arranged a similar event for liberal Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). Murdoch isn’t bad for journalism because he’s a conservative. He’s bad for journalism because he has no principles. In any event, Murdoch’s political activism violates the Dow Jones code of conduct. It states unequivocally:

Dow Jones does not contribute, directly or indirectly, to political campaigns or to political parties or groups seeking to raise money for political campaigns or parties. … All news employees and members of senior management with any responsibility for news should refrain from partisan political activity judged newsworthy by their senior editor or in the case of senior management, the Chief Executive Officer.

Murdoch attempts to assuage Bancroft family worries that he’ll run roughshod over the Wall Street Journal by promising in his May 11 letter to buffer his influence over the paper by creating an “autonomous editorial board” akin to the one that presides over his Times of London. The board would approve the sacking or hiring of either the editor or managing editor of the Wall Street Journal and would arbitrate disputes “between management and editors.”

If insulating Murdoch from the Wall Street Journal is such a great idea, why hasn’t he instituted similarly autonomous editorial boards to shield the operations of the New York Post and Fox News Channel from his whims? But that’s not the Murdoch way. A Page One story in the Feb. 14, 1994, Wall Street Journal portrays Murdoch as a details-crazed micromanager, reviewing before publication the next day’s editorial in his New York Post.

A wordy section of the Dow Jones code of conduct prohibits company employees from accepting money or gifts, either directly or indirectly, from anybody seeking a mention in the pages of a Dow Jones publication. A different code operated at Murdoch’s Post until earlier this month when the paper acknowledged that its “Page Six” editor, Richard Johnson, had accepted a $1,000 gift from a restaurateur. Presumably the money was for “play” in the pages of Murdoch’s newspaper. The New York Times counts 15 favorable “Page Six” mentions of the restaurateur or his establishment in the two years since the gift-giving. 

Once confronted, how did Murdoch’s Post clear the ethical air? Don’t be dense. Its editor, Col Allen, called the receipt of the gift a “grave mistake,” meted out an unspecified reprimand to Johnson, and explicitly banned such future windfalls for employees. But don’t blame Johnson and Allen for their ethical laxity. Boss Murdoch sets low standards for the whole company. They merely follow.

Does Murdoch pass the Dow Jones stink test? He’s not even qualified to take it.


What Murdoch transgressions have I ignored? Send e-mail to E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)